Top 50 Underappreciated Recent Films

20) The Sweet Hereafter

I had no idea hobbits were so short. --Roger Ebert summed up an essential kernel of The Sweet Hereafter when he said that it was "Not about the tragedy of dying, but about the grief of surviving." On paper, a movie about a small Canadian town that loses 14 of its children in one single, horrible school bus accident appears to be strictly Lifetime Movie of the Week material. However, in Atom Egoyan's capable hands, this potentially maudlin premise is transformed into a haunting reflection on love, sorrow, loss and the sheer powerlessness that humans feel as they face the world.

While all of the town's inhabitants have their own methods of trying to piece reality back together after this previously unthinkable tragedy, the lynchpin holding the whole movie together is a plaintiff's lawyer who has come to town in the aftermath (played by the always excellent Ian Holm). At first, the audience is led to believe that Holm might just be a stereotypical ambulance-chasing attorney, come to town to get fat picking the bones of the potential deep-pockets surrounding the accident. We are vaguely repulsed as Holm badgers varying sets of grieving parents, telling them that that there is no such thing as an accident and that if something this terrible has happened, then someone, somewhere must have been at fault and that someone MUST be made to answer for the suffering they have caused. As Egoyan gradually and skillfully moves through his story, Holm's internal seething rage and the reasons behind his desperate need to find causation and blame in life's possibly random and senseless events becomes increasingly clear.

The acting is uniformly great, and the art direction and score are perfect for setting the somber, mournful tone. However, I have to confess that the reason this movie connects with me so strongly is the parent/child theme. And while I've never been a parent, I've been a lost daughter, and I can't help but break down into tears every time I watch the scene where Holm flashes back to the story of his daughter as a baby and the lengths he was willing to go because of his love for her. (Jennifer Turnock/BOP)

--You don't expect a film about grief to be on the tops of many people's lists; it's simply not the kind of thing that people look for in their entertainment. Too bad, perhaps, since The Sweet Hereafter offers one of the truest looks into this most human of experiences. It is about a school bus crash in a small British Columbia town, but this is no three-hankie weeper, no "heroic lawyer fights the system" potboiler; it wants us to experience the before, the during and the after of not just the incident (which appears at an unexpected time and is shocking in its non-cinematic nature), but the people. Ingeniously fractured in time, it's one of the few films to make this trick have resonance and also manages the feat of always letting you know where you stand. Performances in the film are fantastic, with Ian Holm in particular standing out as a lawyer visiting the town, hoping to file a class-action suit on behalf of the parents. He too has grief in his life, but grief doesn't have to result from death; merely loss. Sarah Polley is also terrific as the lone survivor of the crash with some surprising secrets. With this film, director Atom Egoyan announced himself as not only Canada's premiere filmmaker, but also one of the world's finest. He deftly handles material that could have strayed into maudlin territory, but instead achieves a kind of revelatory glimpse into human nature. It's a rare film that can make you sad but also glad that you've experienced it. (Reagen Sulewski/BOP)

19) Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels

Don't touch The Transporter! Ok, let's just get this out there first: Yes, LS2SB (as those of us cool movie kids like to refer to it when we are sitting around the Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf in our ironically shabby "Porn Star" T-shirts and Maharishi cargo pants) basically made Guy Ritchie's career. And yet with that fabulous opportunity, he went on to (a) make the same movie again, only not quite as good (but it had Brad Pitt and it was still pretty damn funny, so we forgive him); and (b) marry Madonna and then film her being abused and humiliated in music videos, BMW ads and strange Overboard-themed remakes (on one hand, not enough Hail Marys in the world to save you on those crimes against humanity, big fella; on the other hand, if we gotta see Madonna at all...).

Also on the negative side, like the similarly-styled Pulp Fiction (though apparently, Mr. Ritchie is quite defensive about the Pulp Fiction comparisons, apparently fearing that some of Quentin Tarantino's "former Golden Boy turned toxic, babbling fool" cooties will rub off on him) spawned a whole cottage industry of bad, hipper-than-thou crime caper knock-offs. Still, can't really blame Alexander Graham Bell just because some dumb asses are under the delusional misconception that it's cute to program their cell phones ring tones to play Me So Horny.

What LS2SB does have going for it is a clever and engaging plot that successfully juggles multiple criminal and quasi-criminal gangs without losing coherence. It's loaded with funny, quotable lines and actors who do a nice job of selling said lines (particularly Vas Blackwood playing the Madman with an Afro, Rory Breaker). Plus, it's got one of the hippest soundtracks in recent memory, and without a Madonna song in sight. (Jennifer Turnock/BOP)

18) Go

I'm not even supposed to be here today. Yes, yes, yes, Doug Liman's Go borrows a few tricks from its predecessor, Pulp Fiction, most noticeably the split time, interlocking sub-plot threads. And while your pal Calvin was a big Pulp Fiction fan at the time, I'd argue that as time has gone on, Go has not been burdened with ubiquitousness (or Quentin Tarantino backlash) the way PF has been. Because while multiple pop-culture sub-references have caused bits like the "Royale with Cheese" scene to become like the once-hilarious party guest that just refuses to sit down and stop with the wacky anecdotes about his trip to Amsterdam, Go has mostly been that really cool guy who chills out quietly in the corner until he suddenly and surprisingly stuns the crowd with the exact perfect punch-line to the set-up that no one else even recognized.

As with many of the other choices for underappreciated gems, the writing in Go is both smart, funny and eminently quotable, but it's Liman's skill as a director that really makes this a movie that stands out from the pack. In particular, Liman has assembled a group of actors known primarily for their work on TV shows and/or teen movies and generally coaxed genuine comedic performances from them (Bravo to Scott Wolf for having a sense of humor about his image). While there are a few bits, particularly in the Vegas sequences, that are a bit too heavy on the wacky high-jinks, the jokes that do work (particularly the Macarena and the sinister cat scenes) more than make up for these minor flaws. (Jennifer Turnock/BOP)

17) Rounders

Um, Ed, where's your hand? --Some things are just fascinating to watch, regardless of the safety involved. People will adore vampire books and novels and somehow not get it into their brains that what they're doing is akin to steers applauding a movie about men dining out at a steak house, with lots of attention to the steak and the eating thereof. In my own case, I know I'm a pitiful gambler, and I don't play cards "for real" because I know I'll get taken every time.

But man, to watch the pros at work...

The limiting factor on this movie is that it helps to enjoy it if you enjoy watching poker hustlers at work, because most of the movie is exactly that: The efforts of two young poker hustlers, one reformed and going back to school, and the other deep in debt and in trouble, seeking his pal's help to get him out of it. Both are out on the street trying to build up the money to do this overnight, going from place to place, looking for the scores. It's a grubby way to make a living or avoid "sleeping with the fishes", but the slickness that Edward Norton and Matt Damon exude as they go through the rapid-fire shuffle of cards and would-be cardsharps is wonderful to watch. You wouldn't think that you'd give a damn about people like this, but they're so good at it that you have to cheer them on as they race through the night. (Jim Rittenhouse/BOP)

--Admittedly, Rounders barely qualifies for this list; almost $23 million at the box office in 1998 and nearly $40 million in rentals since then. Some detractors might even claim that Rounders achieved exactly the level of appreciation it deserved, given the acting performances were throwaway and the tone of the movie was far too glossy in the face of the realism for which it aimed. Let me make one thing clear: I am not one of those detractors. And though I'll grant most of the negative criticisms about the movie, they do not change the fact that Rounders is superiorly enjoyable and eminently watchable.

Being taken to a place most have never been is part of the appeal, as the audience gets an insider's view of the (albeit overly clean and shiny) underground poker scene in New York City, and the personalities of the players, or rounders, it attracts. The edges of the cards are round, see?

Mike McDermott, played by Matt Damon as Will Hunting, is an insider who also happens to be at a crossroads in his life. Mike McD is also a law student with a live-in girlfriend. A house in the suburbs and a two Range Rovers in the garage are starting to appear just over the horizon, should he choose the straight-and-narrow. Uncertainty lies ahead on the road less traveled. Guess which one he chooses?

And it all plays out in living color, as the cast gives solid-if-workmanlike performance after performance. Only Famke Janssen appears to be really stretching herself as an actress in her portrayal of Petra, the Russian whore. Just kidding; Janssen plays a whore pretty easily. The rest of the cast - Damon, Ed Norton, John Turturro, John Malkovich - assume and consume their characters like putting on a favorite shirt. Malkovich in particular chews scene after scene as the vaguely menacing, Oreo-loving Teddy KGB, and has some of the most quotable lines in the movie. A final note on the acting: Contrary to what you might have heard, Gretchen Mol is not in this movie. Just she's not, okay?

So the bottom line on Rounders is it is not great cinema, but it is great fun. The pace is quick, the acting is thoroughly enjoyable, if not ground-breaking, and the story is interesting and well plotted. It is well worth your time. (Calvin Trager/BOP)

16) Requiem for a Dream

And now we're up to first date. --In what should be mandatory viewing for every high school student in the country, Requiem for a Dream shows just how desperate and pathetic drug addiction can make any of us. Four lives, played amazingly by Jared Leto, Jennifer Connelly, Ellen Burstyn and Marlon Wayans, are brought slowly down by the unrelenting nature of their habits. It's a tribute to Darren Afonsky's direction that he can make such an arresting movie visually entertaining. We want to look away, but don't. Even in the last ten minutes, when death would be a mercy to the characters and audience, we never stop being engaged. In the end, with all four addicts curled up in the fetal position, the film shows us that death in life is really just the death of our dreams. (David Parker/BOP)

--Gladiator be damned; Requiem for a Dream was undoubtedly the most powerful movie of 2000. The film is the story of four adults: A mother, her son, his girlfriend, and his best friend, all caught in the tragic web of addiction. Harry Goldfarb is a young man for whom everything is coming up roses. He's in love with a beautiful girl with whom he is planning the rest of his life, and he and his best friend are hatching a plan that will get them enough money to be comfortable for a while. To top it all off, the three of them all shoot up regularly, and have a blast doing it. Things start off great; the two friends are making a ridiculous amount of money selling heroin. However, things start to turn sour soon enough, and the inevitable collapse into a horrifying downward spiral commences. Paralleling this story is that of Harry's mother, Sara, who is a TV junkie obsessed with going on a game show. Once she receives this once-in-a-lifetime offer, her obsession turns to losing enough weight to appear on TV. She becomes addicted to diet pills, and also enters into the downward spiral.

What makes the anti-drug message here so much more powerful than it ever has been anywhere else is the appalling realism with which the effects of drugs are shown. The camerawork is unconventional and phenomenal. The acting is superb. What stopped this movie from mainstream success? Obviously it is the controversial subject matter, which is shown with undeniable explicitness. Still, if it weren't for this explicitness, the movie wouldn't be half as good. I dare anyone to watch this movie and even think of trying heroin afterwards. This is the kind of movie you must see, but will most likely never want to watch again; it's that powerful. (Zach Kolkin/BOP)

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Thursday, November 14, 2019
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